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Abusing Kerberos for Local Privilege Escalation

As the main authentication protocol for Windows enterprise networks, Kerberos has long been a favored hacking playground for security researchers and cybercriminals alike. While the focus has been on attacking Kerberos authentication to carry out remote exploits and aid in lateral movement across the network, new research explores how Kerberos can also be abused to great effect in carrying out a variety of local privilege escalation (LPE) attacks.

At the Black Hat USA conference this week in Las Vegas, James Forshaw, security researcher for Google Project Zero, and Nick Landers, head of adversarial R&D for NetSPI, plan to take the security discussion beyond the Kerberoasting and Golden/Silver ticket attack discussions that have dominated Kerberos security research in recent years. In the session “Elevating Kerberos to the Next Level,” Forshaw and Landers will explore authentication bypasses, sandbox escapes, and arbitrary code execution in privileged processes.

“James and I have both spent a lot of our time digging into Windows internals, and Kerberos is fundamental to network authentication between Windows systems. However, most of the existing research and tooling I’ve done focuses on remote exploitation — ignoring attack surfaces that exist on just a local machine,” says Landers, who explained why the pair decided to dig deeper into design flaws in the way Kerberos does local authentication. “Through this, we’ve discovered many interesting flaws — some fixed and some not — that we’re excited to share on Wednesday, along with the tooling we’ve built and knowledge we’ve gained over the last several months.”

The tooling will help others in the security research community to inspect and manipulate Kerberos on local systems to build on the pair’s research. The duo will also offer up some important detection and configuration advice to help security practitioners mitigate the risk of the flaws that they’ll present.

From a bigger-picture perspective, Landers hopes that his talk can help bring further attention to Kerberos from the entire security world. He says that even though it is the recommended long-term solution for network authentication in Windows environment, replacing deprecated protocols like NetNTLM, security teams shouldn’t assume that its more secure by default than the predecessors.

“Kerberos maintains an extremely large feature set, which continues to grow every year. Obscure functionality first designed in 1998, as well as brand-new code engineered for Windows 11, can both provide nuanced attack surfaces for LPE, security bypasses, or even RCE,” he says. “Where there are more features to search, there is always greater opportunity to discover flaws.”

In addition to offering practical mitigation steps, he hopes the talk will spur security and network administrators to brush up on their Kerberos knowledge to better harden their systems.

“Administrators should become more familiar with Kerberos to be able to apply best practice mitigations effectively. Specifically, since we consistently see the knowledge of attackers outpacing that of defenders when it comes to Kerberos internals,” he says.

His talk will be one of several eye-opening identity and access management-related research presented at Black Hat this week. Some discussions up for exploration include how hybrid cloud IAM deployments are leaving open flaws and misconfigurations ripe for attack and the way that attackers can utilize stolen PII to make it easier to conduct smishing attacks.

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